(Please go to www.schoolchoiceweek.com to find an event near you.)
School Choice Week is coming up next week. While supporters of school choice have a great deal to celebrate, there is still so much progress to be made in order to impact the failed public education system in America. Each state approaches school choice in its own way, with some states ignoring it altogether. It is encouraging to see parents and advocates rally for school choice because those voices cannot be ignored forever. Eventually, states will relent and answer the call for school choice. Even then, struggling against the forces in opposition to parents and students is the necessary path to improving schools that have failed our children.
In spite of increases in spending and support for new programs and new school buildings, America’s educational system is failing:
-An estimated 1.2 million students failed to graduate from high school in 2008. That is nearly 7,000 dropouts a day or one dropout every 26 seconds.
-Nearly 50 percent of children in our nation’s largest cities do not graduate from high school.
-American 15-year-olds scored below average in science when compared to students in 29 other countries. In math, our students are outperformed by their peers in 23 other countries.
The past year has produced many victories for school choice. Currently, seven states and the District of Columbia offer school voucher programs. About the same number of states also offer scholarship tax credit programs. Additionally, over 1.6 million children attend public charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia. But clearly, seven states or 1.6 million children cannot begin to promise every child a successful education.
One of the boldest scholarship programs was enacted by Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana, the Choice Scholarship Program, providing 4,000 scholarships for students from families with low or middle incomes. This cap on the voucher program will be gradually raised and then, finally, eliminated by 2014. But this victory has engendered the ire of such opponents as, ironically, the Indiana State Teachers Association who claim that the legislation is unconstitutional. Providing immediate relief to students is not acceptable to these opponents of school choice. The entire process of providing successful learning environments for students grinds to a halt due to the intense opposition of organizations who are capable of spending thousands of dollars on lawsuits.
The facts surrounding Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program offer plenty of reason to hope that it will stand:
U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that state vouchers are constitutional. In 2002, the high court ruled that vouchers do not violate the U.S. Constitution because education dollars go to the parents to choose the school for their children, not to the schools themselves.
While opponents make subjective arguments about the program’s constitutionality, there’s no denying the overwhelmingly positive results that the program has produced in just one semester of operation:
-58 percent of scholarship recipients qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
-53 percent of scholarships recipients are minorities, including 24 percent African-American and 19 percent Hispanic.
-69 percent of participating students live in metropolitan areas, 16 percent live in suburban areas and 15 percent live in rural areas.
-Children using vouchers come from 185 different school districts.
-The Choice Scholarship Program will enroll up to 15,000 students next year, and beginning in 2013-14, there will be no cap on scholarships.
Costly court battles are the main modus operandi of school choice opponents who seek to intimidate and discourage the expansion and success of options such as public charter schools and student scholarships. Over the past summer, New York City participants in 16 public charter schools endured a legal attack on their schools that, once again, was organized by a group of teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). The teachers’ union was joined in its fight against co-location, or the sharing of space of public charter schools inside public school buildings, by the NAACP.
The travesty of the NAACP uniting with the teachers’ union to attack the public charter schools erupted within that community as student and parent protesters took to the streets to save their schools. The irony of this attack is that the families who were affected by this attempt to shut down their schools were primarily minorities.
Outrageously, the NAACP claimed to have joined the lawsuit in an attempt to achieve more fair and equitable education for all students. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous equated the practice of co-location of schools to “separate but equal”.
“This lawsuit was filed for the most common reasons we have sued boards of education across the decades: Students are being grossly mistreated, their parents are being deeply disrespected and the entire community stands to suffer.”
It is true that students educated inside the public charter school regularly achieve success while students sharing the space in classrooms on the other side of that very building continue to fail in traditional school settings. But it is not merely government alone that imposes such an irrational system, but rather the entrenched opposition of groups such as teachers’ unions who demand caps on charter schools or defeat legislation that would otherwise expand the opportunity to all students.
A study of student performance by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University indicates that the students in NYC public charter schools outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools overall.
The results also show that in New York City, black and Hispanic students enrolled in charter schools do significantly better in reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.
The rallies that ensued in NYC highlighted the struggle that is necessary if school choice is to flourish. One parent became the spokeswoman for the group as she stood in front of a sign that read- “UFT your lawsuit hurts my child”. She addressed the crowd of a few hundred outside the offices of the teacher’s union:
“I’ve chosen a school that’s great, and a great fit for my daughter. But the UFT with this lawsuit, has slammed the door in her face,” she said. “This is not an anti-union demonstration. I belong to a union. I come from a family of union members. I believe unions should fight for jobs. But don’t fight my little girl. She deserves a good education.”
The UFT and NAACP have lost that court battle for now. But the teacher’s union has vowed to continue its fight.
School Choice has been called “the civil rights battle of our generation.” As we pause to remember the blessings of the great achievement of Martin Luther King, Jr., we also must admit that there is still too much that needs to be finished. There are still children suffering in failing public schools who are being robbed of the opportunity for which so many Americans have sacrificed. But despite our best efforts and noble intentions, it is urgent that we deal honestly with the disparities that exist within our nation’s crumbling educational system. There is corruption that must be rooted out, and there are solutions that are being ignored. But as every year passes, precious hours of youth are squandered in classrooms that provide no real benefit, promise no real success, and do not prepare students to capitalize on the opportunity for prosperity as they are forced to attend schools mandated according to zip code.
Americans continue to reflect on the words of one of the greatest leaders who ever lived. Here are a few lines cobbled together from the enduring I Have a Dream speech:
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
“This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”